Mumbai: On 4 January, 1993, when communal riots raged across Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Gajanan Kirtikar, then a Shiv Sena MLA, allegedly led a protest in Jogeshwari against police orders.
As detailed in the Srikrishna Commission report, the mob led by Kirtikar pelted stones at the homes of Muslims, attacked a Muslim with swords and sickles and damaged a mosque. A special court acquitted Kirtikar of all charges in the riots case in 2008.
Kirtikar was just one of the several fiery Shiv Sainiks that the Srikrishna Commission, which was constituted to inquire into the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, named in its report. The commission also indicted Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray.
In 1998, when the then Shiv Sena-led state government filed a weak Action Taken Report on the commission’s submission, the opposition protested tooth and nail with the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Nawab Malik even setting it on fire outside the state assembly.
Twenty-seven years later, as the Shiv Sena prepares to take credit for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya with talk of party president and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray attending the bhoomipujan on 5 August, much has changed within the party and its cadre.
Uddhav and Aaditya Thackeray’s Shiv Sena is just a shadow of the belligerent, baleful and communal political outfit of the 1990s, and more so after it forged an alliance with its former ideological rivals, the NCP and the Congress, last year. NCP’s Malik, who was vociferously demanding action against Bal Thackeray in 1998, is now a minister in the Uddhav Thackeray-led cabinet. Also, Kirtikar, like most others from his time, is just a mellow parliamentarian.
Why the Shiv Sena has softened
It was around 2014 that Shiv Sena’s politics started taking a liberal turn as Mumbai’s demographics gradually changed and Aaditya Thackeray’s dominance grew within the party. For one, the party’s infamous Valentine’s Day protests stopped because of the Thackeray scion.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Shiv Sena’s ally of 25 years, was aggressively eyeing the latter’s home turf of Maharashtra, brandishing its Hindutva agenda to attract the Sena’s core vote-bank and speaking to the youth, to Mumbai’s cosmopolitan cocktail and to fence-sitters about rapid development.
And ahead of the 2017 Mumbai civic elections, which the Shiv Sena and BJP fought separately, the Sena was compelled to rework its political strategy to retain its hold on the city that has been the party’s bastion.
Traditionally in the saffron alliance, Mumbai’s Marathi-dominated areas would be contested by the Shiv Sena, while the Gujarati and North Indian-dominated wards would go to the BJP, where the Shiv Sena had limited presence.
The Shiv Sena softened its image under the leadership of the mild-mannered Uddhav Thackeray and promoted his son, Aaditya, to speak to young voters in their language.
Much like in the country, where around 50 per cent of the total voting population — 378.6 million out of 762 million — falls in the age bracket of 18 to 35 years, a large number of voters are the young in Mumbai and Maharashtra.
Aaditya spoke about opening up Mumbai’s nightlife, reforming higher education, reserving streets for artists and musicians, having more green spaces and football grounds and bringing in personalities such as Dino Morea, Akshay Kumar and Alia Bhatt for his causes.
The Shiv Sena, meanwhile, inducted leaders from the Gujarati community, organised Chhat Pujas, and fielded Muslim candidates in the civic polls and got its first Muslim corporator elected.
There were, however, still incidents where the party’s violent aggression, core to how the political outfit took shape, was out on display such as the ink attack on Observer Research Foundation head Sudheendra Kulkarni or forcing a Maharashtra Sadan Muslim staffer to break his Ramadan fast. But as Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray never vocally backed these incidents unlike his father.
The Shiv Sena, which metamorphosed from a vigilante outfit to a more passive aggressive one over the past few years, further blunted its aggression after coming to power with the Congress and NCP, traditionally its ideological rivals.
From telling people in every election speech that it was the Shiv Sena that saved the Hindus of Mumbai during the 1992-93 riots, CM Thackeray, soon after swearing in, transitioned to saying that it was the party’s mistake to mix religion and politics.
“The CM went to Ayodhya earlier this year as the party does not want to lose its core Right-wing voters to the BJP, and Shiv Sena leaders are making statements about him going for the bhoomipujan of the temple as the party doesn’t want the BJP to stake credit,” said Hemant Desai, a political commentator. “But, essentially, under Uddhav and Aaditya Thackeray’s leadership, the Shiv Sena is moving towards a more centrist face.”
Kirtikar, now an MP from the Mumbai North West constituency, insists that the Shiv Sena has not changed. “I spent my whole life getting justice for our Marathi people in employment. I organised andolans, gheraos, morchas. There was even Shiv Sena style tod-fod (vandalism),” he said.
“Earlier, we had to come out on the streets for people to take note of the issue that we are raising. Now I can make one call and get work done,” he said.
Another senior Shiv Sena leader who did not wish to be named, said the Shiv Sena is bound by the same constraints that any ruling party is. “We shouldn’t stir trouble for the government while trying to make the administration or someone else face the music,” he said.
For instance, earlier this month, Shiv Sena MLA Pratap Sarnaik wrote to the state home minister demanding the arrest of a stand-up comedian for cracking a joke on the proposed Chhatrapati Shivaji memorial in the Arabian Sea.
If this was the Shiv Sena’s original avatar, the protest would have been registered not simply by a letter to the state home minister, but by demonstrations on the street.
“Uddhav saheb is heading the state and we will be troubling our own police force if we choose to agitate,” the leader said.
“Also, we have thumbed our noses at the BJP in forming this government of parties with dissimilar ideologies,” he added. “We have to ensure that it lasts and we know what a tightrope walk it is for Uddhavsaheb. The cadre knows better than to create unnecessary trouble.”
Every now and then, however, the party still plays to its core voter base. For instance, Shiv Sena workers Thursday held a demonstration against Vice President Venkaiah Naidu saying he disrespected their icon, Maratha warrior king Shivaji.
Old timers and hardliners either silent or cast in new Sena mould
Some of the Shiv Sena’s old timers and hardliners such as Manohar Joshi, Liladhar Dake and even Diwakar Raote are no longer a part of the party’s inner circle.
Some, like Kirtikar and Shiv Sena legislator Ravindra Waikar, also charged and acquitted in the 1993 riots case, have moulded themselves to fit the brand of politics that the Shiv Sena’s leadership now practices.
Political observers say that Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray’s exit from the party with many of its hardline leaders in tow took some heft out of the Shiv Sena. Former CM Joshi was gradually distanced as he had criticised Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership style after the latter took over the party’s reins following his father’s death.
Rabble-rousing leaders such as Raote and Ramdas Kadam eventually drifted off as Uddhav Thackeray tightened his inner circle to people such as wife Rashmi, son Aaditya, secretary Milind Narvekar and ministers such as Desai, Eknath Shinde, Anil Parab.
Many other Shiv Sena old timers have passed away. This includes leaders such as Madhukar Sarpotdar, who was convicted by the trial court in the 1993 riots case, Moreshwar Save, who led a Shiv Sena platoon to the Babri masjid, Pramod Navalkar and Datta Nalawade, among others.
“From among the old guard, Sanjay Raut is still among the party’s core leadership and keeps making strong statements every now and then,” political analyst Desai said. “It helps the Shiv Sena talk to its core voter base. But, then on a few occasions the party leadership has distanced itself from his statements too.”
For instance, earlier this year, Raut had said those opposing a Bharat Ratna for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar should be put in jail, prompting Aaditya Thackeray to clarify that this was the Rajya Sabha MP’s personal opinion.
“Among the current set of Shiv Sena netas (the topmost rung of leaders in the party) there isn’t anyone who will come out on the streets and agitate like in the past,”a Shiv Sena functionary who did not wish to be named said,
The Shiv Sena Bhavan too is no longer a vibrant political office with a motley mix of people crowding to meet the Shiv Sena leadership as during Bal Thackeray’s time, party leaders say.
“I just got back from Shiv Sena Bhavan. Very few netas go there regularly now,” the Shiv Sena functionary said.
“It’s not the same feeling,” he added.